Prefinished vs Site Finished Hardwood Floors

Hardwood flooring installation can be done in two ways. Either you get pre-finished floors or order semi-finished products. Deciding one of them is an important consideration, besides choosing the colour, texture and finish. It’s best to know the pros and cons of each and select what meets your requirements.

Prefinished or Site Finished Hardwood Floors – A Comparative Study

There’s a lot of confusion as to which is the better option – prefinished or site finished hardwood floors. While each has its advantages and looks attractive, they also differ in terms of installation, finishing, sanding and convenience. Let’s look at their benefits and drawbacks so you can make an informed decision.

Advantages of Prefinished Hardwood Floors

  • Quick Installation

Prefinished Hardwood Floors Installation

Prefinished floors are quick and easy to install. Once complete, you can instantly walk on them and even place furniture. With site finished hardwood floors, sanding and staining the boards onsite may take several days. Then you have to wait another few days to put the furniture back.

Sanding is a messy process that will fill your house with wood particles. It can take several hours or even days for finishes to dry between coats. Even after that, the finish can leave a residual odour that takes weeks to dissipate. Prefinished floors, on the other hand, are ready to use as soon as they’re installed.

  • No Odour

Onsite hardwood finishing involves the use of oil-based polyurethane resins and solvents that emit VOCs, which have been shown to be carcinogenic. For several days after using polyurethane coatings, you can breathe in chemical/toxic fumes. Since prefinished boards are stained and finished in a factory under ideal environmental conditions – not in your home – there’s zero risk of inhaling VOCs or other harmful gases. This is a huge advantage for high-traffic buildings and households with pets, kids, seniors or people with allergies.

  • Scratch Resistance

Site finished hardwood generally gets two or three coats of polyurethane; prefinished or factory-made wood gets at least six or seven coats that are oven baked with aluminium oxide – the world’s second hardest substance. This process involves the use of powerful chemical sealers that are applied using commercial methods not usually available to onsite installers. This makes prefinished hardwood seven to 10 times more scratch resistant than site finished hardwood. The latter generally has a warranty of three to five years; the former may have warranties of up to 25 years or more.

  • Easy Maintenance

Since prefinished hardwood boards are factory made and the surface seal is strong and durable, they require minimal maintenance. They’re also slightly more resistant to moisture, stains and discolouration than site refinished floors. Moreover, their durable and long-lasting finish means you can save the time, money and hassle of refinishing your floors every few years.

Advantages of Site Finished Hardwood Floors

  • Smooth Edges

Most prefinished hardwood planks have a slight slope at their edges. While some people prefer this natural look, others like the smooth look achieved after sanding.

Unlike prefinished hardwood floors that don’t have their edges sealed, site finished hardwood floors are properly sanded and sealed with polyurethane. This makes them a better choice for kitchens where the floors are often exposed to damp, moisture or humidity. Another problem with prefinished hardwoods, particularly darker colours, is that the underside of the wood (along the edges) is visible from a distance. This is because the manufacturers don’t always apply stain on the planks’ edges, and even if they do, it often wears away during shipping and installation. This is less noticeable in light coloured woods. With site finished hardwood floors, the wood is completely sanded and refinished until the surface is smooth and stain and sealant is applied to all areas, including the edges.

  • Easy Customization

One of the biggest benefits of choosing site finished solid hardwood flooring is its customization. Since unfinished hardwood planks are basically raw wood, you can apply any stain and finish you like. Prefinished flooring, on the other hand, comes from the manufacturer with pre-applied stain and finish. If you have a particular design, colour or finish in mind, unfinished hardwood is clearly the only option. If you’re working on a particular space in your home and want to match its floor to an existing one, unfinished or site finished hardwood floors are the best options.

  • Colour Choice

Whether you have a particular colour in mind or want to mix & match different stains and finishes, site finished floors are the perfect choice. While you may find your preferred colour with prefinished hardwood, your options are often limited. Moreover, different hardwood boards have different colours (some light, some dark), and it’s better to test the stain on several boards to get an idea about the final look. Unlike prefinished wood that comes with pre-applied stains, raw or unfinished hardwood provides you with this trial advantage.

  • Less Risk

Since site finished hardwood is basically unfinished/raw hardwood, you can apply almost any finish without worrying about the colour coat not adhering. There’s no risk of a new coat standing out from an old one. However, even when you’re working with unfinished wood, it’s best to test out any stains on the board to make sure the results are as desired.

Disadvantages of Prefinished Hardwood Floors

  • Gaps Between Planks

The biggest disadvantage of a prefinished floor is that each plank is separate, without any sealant between them. This gap allows dirt, dust and moisture to accumulate which can cause mould and bacteria to grow beneath the surface and damage your floors. To avoid this, it’s important to ensure that the sealant is applied properly during installation.

  • Design Limitations

You have limited design options when it comes to prefinished hardwood floors. If you want a floor with elaborate borders and inlays, factory-finished floors might not be the right option.

  • Height Discrepancy

When a floor is finished on site, the wood is first installed then sanded flat. Sanding helps remove any height differences that may occur due to an uneven subfloor. Prefinished hardwood is already stained and finished which means no sanding is required. Naturally, prefinished floor surfaces will reveal any subfloor irregularities.

  • Refinishing Issues

While prefinished hardwood floors are durable and don’t need frequent refinishing, they will eventually fade and develop scratches. However, since the sealant used in prefinished floors is generally very thick and penetrates into the wood, sanding becomes difficult; you need to sand further down into the wood to remove the topcoat. This will scrape away some of the wood and make the floor thin and fragile, limiting the number of times you can refinish it before you need a replacement.

Disadvantages of Site Finished Hardwood Floors

  • Minor Imperfections

Unlike prefinished floors, site finished ones aren’t stained and finished in a dust-proof and climate-controlled environment. This means that dirt and dust particles settle on the topcoat as it dries, resulting in minor imperfections. Although most of these flaws get fixed after using the floors for a few days, they won’t be as perfect as the factory-made ones.

  • Messy Process

No matter what type of finish you choose for your hardwood flooring, it needs to be sanded first to smooth the surface and cut down the raised edges. If your floors aren’t prefinished, you need to sand them on site. This is a messy process that causes a lot of dust and noise. Unless you’re an expert, leave the sanding and finishing to an experienced hardwood floor installer. This will further –albeit necessarily – increase installation costs.

  • Longer Wait Times

Unlike prefinished planks that are ready to install and use, onsite hardwood finishing and installation can take several days to complete before you can actually use the floors. Material and machinery are brought to the site for sanding, staining and applying a polyurethane finish. This process takes time, requiring you to wait for several hours or even days for the coats to dry before walking on the floor or placing any furniture.

  • Strong Odour

The strong smell that comes from stain and oil-based polyurethane can be overwhelming or even dangerous when you’re exposed to it too long. Moreover, the odour often gets trapped in the dryer vent which releases a burning smell for a few days until the fumes clear out.

The decision to choose between prefinished and site finished hardwood floors depends on your requirements, design preferences and time constraints. If you’re allergic to dust and want to avoid the noise and hassle of onsite finishing, prefinished hardwood flooring is the obvious choice. But if you have a certain design in mind or want something completely unique, site finished flooring is the better option. Consider the benefits and drawbacks of each to decide what works best for you.

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